DENVER – Conservatives are crying foul after a small public university in southern Colorado offered college credit for students volunteering for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
Adams State University in Alamosa insists it did nothing wrong and that independent-study credits are available for students working for any campaign, but Republican Mitt Romney’s camp never asked. The school says it withdrew the Obama internship offer because no students signed up for it.
The Adams State flap underscores the pitched presidential battle in Colorado and shows how the presidential campaigns have taken far different approaches to engaging college students for campaign work.
The conservative Americans For Prosperity argues public institutions shouldn’t give course credit for campaigning.
In a letter sent last week to the state Department of Higher Education, Colorado AFP head Jeff Crank called it “questionable” and “unethical” for Adams State to give course credit for campaign work.
“Coloradoans have a right to know whether the Obama campaign succeeded in convincing a taxpayer-funded university to offer college credits to students participating in partisan activities,” the letter read.
A spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, a former university president and head of the Department of Higher Education, said department staff planned to investigate but that state action would be unlikely.
Julie McCluskey said the department “does not oversee or approve individual schools’ course offerings or curriculum.”
A spokeswoman for Adams State, Julie Waechter, said there was no request from Romney organizers to offer an internship. Waechter dismissed suggestions on conservative student blogs that course credit for campaigning would violate Colorado law, which prohibits the use of public resources toward political campaigns.
“My understanding is that this is common practice, credit for students interning on campaigns, and there is zero compensation for the student,” Waechter said.
The University of Colorado in Boulder said 13 undergraduates are participating in political internships this semester, seven of them on campaigns including Romney’s. A school spokesman said the students must complete a campaign-related research project to receive credit for their work.
Colorado’s battleground status gives the college-credit campaign work more heft. Young voters traditionally have leaned Democratic, and Obama put special emphasis on young campaign workers going back to his days as a presidential hopeful. A “Students for Obama” website tells interested volunteers that course credit for campaign work is up to their schools.
“Contact your college/university with questions regarding college credit. The campaign cannot guarantee that you will receive college credit for work as an organizing fellow,” the campaign tells students.
When Obama ran in 2008, voter turnout among those 18 to 24 was at its highest level since 1972. No other age group had such an increase.
Obama’s strategy in Colorado this year appears to rely heavily on students. In the last year, the president has spoken to students at a Denver high school and to students at the Auraria Campus in Denver. He visited Colorado State University in Fort Collins and made two trips to the University of Colorado in Boulder.
In an Associated Press-GfK poll released recently, 54 percent of registered voters under 35 said they would vote for Obama, compared to 38 percent for Romney. Older voters split about evenly.
Obama seems to be courting college-age voters and volunteers more than Romney, said Terry Hartle of the Washington-based American Council on Education, a trade association for colleges and universities. Hartle didn’t know of any institutions running afoul of laws banning public resources being used for campaigning.
“It’s a tempest in a teapot,” Hartle said of the Adams State flap. “I don’t know of any institution that would be foolish enough to say, ‘You can get credit for one side but not for the other side.’ Anything colleges and universities can do to give kids real-world experience in this economy is a good thing.”